Theodor Adorno Essay - Critical Essays

Theodor Wiesengrund

Adorno, Theodor


Theodor Adorno 1903-1969

(Full name Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno) German philosopher, sociologist, musicologist, and critic.

Adorno is widely considered to have been the most brilliant member of the Frankfurt School, a group of sociologists and psychologists organized formally as the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a privately endowed center for Marxist studies that was founded after the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s.

Biographical Information

Adorno was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1903. His father, Oscar Wiesengrund, was a wealthy wine merchant of Jewish descent, and his mother, Maria Calvelli-Adorno, was a well-known professional singer of German-French-Genoese parentage. As a child Adorno was quiet and intensely intellectual. He was strongly influenced by the many singers and musicians who frequented his parents' house and hoped to become a composer. At the University of Frankfurt, however, Adorno studied philosophy, psychology, and sociology as well as musicology. After earning his doctorate in philosophy in 1925, he moved to Vienna to study musical composition, but he was bitterly disappointed to find that he lacked the talent to succeed. However, while in Vienna, Adorno began to contribute essays and reviews to various Viennese journals, and he soon established himself as a knowledgeable, original, and perceptive critic and philosopher of music, as well as a champion of avant-garde composers. The range of his critical writings soon widened to include literature, aesthetics, and culture in general, while his approach to the arts, under the influence of his friend Walter Benjamin, became increasingly sociological and political. In 1928 Adorno returned to Frankfurt and the University. A few years later he began his long friendship with Max Horkheimer, who was director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research from 1930 to 1958. Adorno did not at first become a member of the Institute, which moved first to Geneva and then to the United States after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Instead, Adorno went to Merton College, Oxford, to study philosophy and then to Princeton University in the United States. In 1938 he became head of music studies at the Institute's Office of Radio Research at Princeton. In 1941, when Horkheimer moved to California because of ill health, Adorno followed, becoming part of a brilliant expatriate community that included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Alfred Doeblin. Adorno served as co-director and theoretician of the most famous of the Institute's American projects, the Research Project on Social Discrimination, from 1944 to 1949. That year the Institute moved back to Frankfurt, and nine years later Adorno succeeded Horkheimer as director. At the same time he became professor of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt, into which the Institute was incorporated. The Frankfurt School had by that time ended its connections with orthodox Marxism, and was disillusioned with both the Soviet Union and the industrial working class. In the postwar years it functioned primarily as a center of academic sociology, where Adorno and Horkheimer passed on to their students what they had learned of empirical social science in the United States. Through the 1950s and 1960s Adorno published widely on a variety of topics, including music, philosophy, literature, and popular culture. In the late 1960s the Institute's offices were frequently invaded by students protesting its misperceived conservatism. In April of that year three politically radical female students entered Adorno's classroom, bared their breasts, mocked him with flowers and kisses, and finally declared him dead as an institution. Adorno was horrified by the outburst and, according to some, never recovered. He died of a heart attack later that year.

Major Works

Adorno's writings strongly reflect his Marxist, anti-fascist, beliefs. From 1942 to 1944 Adorno collaborated with Horkheimer on writing Philosophische Fragmente (Philosophical Fragments; 1944), later translated as Dialectic of Enlightenment. In this work Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the European masses had allowed themselves to be exploited by their leaders, who had substituted the pursuit of power for the pursuit of happiness during the period of fascist power in Europe. In 1950 Adorno published the results of the Institute's Research Project on Social Discrimination under the title The Authoritarian Personality. In the study, about two thousand American citizens were interviewed to establish personality traits and family backgrounds that characterize people who develop racist and anti-democratic views. Adorno also published extensively on music, both books and essays, generally focusing on the social aspects of the art form. In The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949) Adorno contrasted Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky as the positive and negative poles of the new music. In Versuch über Wagner (1952) Adorno argued that the music of Richard Wagner helped to inspire the beginnings of National Socialism, which developed into Nazism in Germany. Many of Adorno's essays on music demonstrate his hostility to jazz and other forms of popular music as being a drug employed by the establishment to pacify the exploited masses. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951) is a more personal collection of aphorisms criticizing fascist tendencies in the twentieth century and the materialism of modern industrial civilization. Two major philosophical works of Adorno's later career stand out. In Negative Dialectics (1966) Adorno discussed Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger and their textual reproductions of reality. In his Ästhetische Theorie (1970), which was left unfinished at his death, Adorno argued in favor of a theory of the autonomy of artistic works and explored the connection between art and society.

Critical Reception

While Adorno's writing is considered difficult and at times almost abstract, his ideas on aesthetics, sociology, music, and popular culture have been both admired and excoriated. Many music critics, for example, admit the brilliance of Adorno's observations on classical music but find his work on popular music—in particular jazz—unenlightened and ignorant. Other critics, however, believe that Adorno's writings on jazz and other popular music have been long misinterpreted. Despite his lifelong stance as a vigorous anti-fascist and his strong influence on modern European democratic thought, Adorno came under fire later in his life because of his refusal to take radical political action and because some of his writings on aesthetics and culture were interpreted as overly conservative. European university students frequently protested and stormed the offices of the Frankfort Institute. More recently, Adorno has been restored to his respected place in modern philosophy and sociology, with some critics maintaining that his works are some of the most important of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des ästhetischen [Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic] (philosophy) 1933

Memorandum: Music in Radio (musicology) 1938

Philosophische Fragmente [with Max Horkheimer] (philosophy) 1944; revised edition published as Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente 1947; published as Dialectic of Enlightenment 1972

Philosophie der neuen Musik [Philosophy of Modern Music] (philosophy) 1949

The Authoritarian Personality (sociology) 1950

Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben [Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life] (philosophy) 1951

Versuch über Wagner [In Search of Wagner] (philosophy) 1952

Die gegängelte Musik: Bemerkungen über die Musikpolitik der Ostblockstaaten (musicology) 1954

Dissonanzen: Musik in der verwalteten Welt (musicology) 1956

Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie: Studien über Husserl und die phänomenologischen Antinomien [Against Epistemology: A Metacritique] (philosophy) 1956

Aspekte der Hegelschen Philosophie (philosophy) 1957

Die Funktion des Kontrapunkts in der neuen Musik (musicology) 1957

Prismen: Kulturkritik und Geselschaft [Prisms] (philosophy) 1957

Noten zur Literatur 4 vols. (criticism) 1958-74

Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie [Introduction to the Sociology of Music] (sociology) 1962

Drei Studien zu Hegel (philosophy) 1963

Jargon der Eigentlichkeit: Zur deutschen Ideologie [The Jargon of Authenticity (philosophy) 1965

Negative Dialektik [Negative Dialectics] (philosophy) 1966

Komposition für den Film [Composing for the Films; with Hanns Eisler] (musicology) 1969

Ästhetische Theorie (philosophy) 1970

Aufsätze zur Gesellschaftstheorie und Methodology (essays) 1970

Gesammelte Werke 23 vols. (collected writings) 1970

Der Positivismusstreit in der Deutschen Soziologie [The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology] (essays) 1976


Ben Agger (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “On Happiness and the Damaged Life,” in On Critical Theory, edited by John O'Neill, The Seabury Press, 1976, pp. 12-33.

[In the following essay, Agger explains Adorno's place in critical theory.]

Critical theory chances to be either a museum-piece in the hands of its modern inheritors or a living medium of political self-expression. My argument is that critical theory can only be renewed—as Marx would have hoped—by refusing to concentrate on its philosophical inheritance and instead by writing the theory in a direct and unmediated way. The old saw that to be a Marxist is to surpass Marx is just as true for critical theory: Adorno, Horkheimer, and...

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David Martin (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Dr. Adorno's Bag of Tricks,” in Encounter, Vol. 47, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 67-76.

[In the following essay, Martin reviews Minima Moralia, finding the book intriguing even though he disagrees with many of Adorno's assertions.]

Our society distributes itself into Barbarians, Philistines and Populace.

—Matthew Arnold

Those qualified to judge are inclined to regard T. W. Adorno's Minima Moralia1 as the masterwork of the Frankfurt School. Certainly it illustrates one of that School's cardinal tenets: a rejection of over-arching system. An author who claims...

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Philip Rosen (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Adorno and Film Music: Theoretical Notes on Composing for the Films,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 60, 1980, pp. 157-82.

[In the following essay, Rosen discusses Adorno's little-known volume Composing for the Films.]

Important recent work on the ideological operations of cinema bases itself on a view of the history of the graphic arts deriving from studies by Francastel and a more or less Althusserian view of ideology.1 But cinema incorporates non-graphic elements which have their own histories and social roles “outside of” and “before” cinema, and ideological analysis must account for the integration into cinema of such elements....

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Peter Uwe Hohendahl (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Autonomy of Art: Looking Back at Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie,1 in German Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, March, 1981, pp. 133-48.

[In the following essay, Hohendahl examines critical response to the publication of Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie.]

Theodor Adorno's major contribution to the philosophy of art, his Ästhetische Theorie, appeared in 1970.2 The work was almost completed when the author died in 1969. Adorno meant to rewrite the introduction, but otherwise the text needed only formal revisions, which were carried out by Rolf Tiedemann, Adorno's faithful disciple and editor. Tiedemann rightly felt that...

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Andreas Huyssen (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Adorno in Reverse: From Hollywood to Richard Wagner,” in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 16-43.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Huyssen discusses the influence of Adorno's theory of the “culture industry.”]

Ever since the failure of the 1848 revolution, the culture of modernity has been characterized by the contentious relationship between high art and mass culture. The conflict first emerged in its typical modern form in the Second Empire under Napoleon III and in Bismarck's new German Reich. More often than not it has appeared in the guise of an irreconcilable...

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Martin Jay (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Adorno in America,” in Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America, Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 120-37.

[In the following essay, Jay analyzes the theoretical, sociological, and aesthetic work Adorno did while living and working in the United States.]

The exemplary anecdotes are known to us all. Adorno arrives in America in 1938 to work on Paul Lazarsfeld's Princeton Radio Research Project. Lazarsfeld writes of his new acquaintance: “He looks as you would image a very absent-minded German professor, and he behaves so foreign that I feel like a member of the Mayflower society.”1 Adorno travels to the...

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William P. Nye (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Theodor Adorno on Jazz: A Critique of Critical Theory,” in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 69-73.

[In the following essay, Nye examines the ways in which Adorno's opinions about American culture affected his criticism of jazz.]

The school of social thought called critical theory has two major branches. The younger is associated with the work of Jurgen Habermas and colleagues and has little relevance to the concerns of this paper. The focus here is on the other variety of critical theory which often goes by the name of the Frankfurt School, for it officially began with the establishment of the Institute of Social Research, in...

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Rainer Rochlitz (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Language for One, Language for All: Adorno and Modernism,” in Perspectives on Musical Aesthetics, edited by John Rahn, W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, pp. 21-39.

[In the following essay, originally published in French in 1988, Rochlitz locates Adorno's place in aesthetic modernity.]

Modernity can be assigned a minimalist as well as a maximalist definition. In the first case, one would go back to the birth of modern subjectivity, to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and modernity would be understood as the perpetual re-questioning of the normative criteria on which a posttraditional society is founded, as a chronic tension between...

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Rüdiger Bubner (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Concerning the Central Idea of Adorno's Philosophy,” in The Semblance of Subjectivity: Essays in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, edited by Tom Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart, The MIT Press, 1997, pp. 147–75.

[In the following essay, originally published in German in 1989, Bubner interprets the major points of Adorno's philosophical system.]

“I do not want to decide whether my theory is grounded in a particular understanding of humanity and human existence. I deny, however, that it is necessary to have recourse to such an understanding.” This lapidary statement occurs at the end of the Aktualität der Philosophie, the inaugural lecture with which...

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Carol V. Hamilton (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “All That Jazz Again: Adorno's Sociology of Music,” in Popular Music and Society, Vol. 15, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 31-40.

[In the following essay, Hamilton argues that Adorno's ideas about jazz, understood in their proper context, do have relevance as a part of his larger aesthetic theory.]

Theodor Adorno's “On Jazz” is as infamous in academic circles as it is misunderstood. In the Winter, 1988, issue of Popular Music and Society, William P. Nye renewed the attack on Adorno, dismissing not only his analysis of jazz, but his work in general, that of other Frankfurt School members, and the claims of critical theory to be a scholarly, oppositional...

(The entire section is 3539 words.)

James M. Harding (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Historical Dialectics and the Autonomy of Art in Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 183-95.

[In the following essay, Harding argues that Adorno's thesis in Ästhetische Theorie is based on a notion of historical dialectics.]

As Peter Hohendahl has noted, the posthumous publication of Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie in 1970 disappointed many who expected that it would provide a materialist aesthetic which would cultivate praxis.1 The Left, who dismissed the work “out of hand,” maintained that, though anti-capitalist, the text advocated an...

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Richard Wolin (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Mimesis, Utopia, and Reconciliation: A Redemptive Critique of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory,” in The Terms of Cultural Criticism: The Frankfurt School, Existentialism, Poststructuralism, Columbia University Press, pp. 62-79.

[In the following essay, Wolin examines the utopian elements of Adorno's aesthetics.]

In 1980, Leo Lowenthal formulated a set of prescient insights about the future of Critical Theory in an interview entitled “The Utopian Motif is Suspended.”1 By “utopian motif,” Lowenthal was referring to the eschatological hopes for a better life in the here and now that inspired not only the enterprise of Critical Theory, but...

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Miriam Hansen (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Of Mice and Ducks: Benjamin and Adorno on Disney,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 27-61.

[In the following essay, Hansen discusses differences in the way Disney was viewed by Adorno and Walter Benjamin, finding in their respective analyses important keys to their opinions on twentieth-century American mass culture.]

Walter Benjamin's reflections on film and mass culture repeatedly revolved around Disney, in particular early Mickey Mouse cartoons and Silly Symphonies.1 Theodor W. Adorno took issue with Benjamin's investment in Disney, both in direct correspondence and implicitly, in his writings on jazz and, after...

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Thomas Pepper (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Guilt by (Un)Free Association: Adorno on Romance et al,” in MLN, Vol. 109, No. 5, December, 1994, pp. 913-37.

[In the following essay, Pepper analyzes the aphorisms in Minima Moralia.]

It follows from this that anybody who attempts to come out alive—and survival itself has something nonsensical about it, like dreams in which, having experienced the end of the world, one afterwards crawls from a basement—ought also to be prepared at each moment to end his life.1

But this is to condemn and to love in an abusive way.2


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James M. Harding (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Adorno, Ellison, and the Critique of Jazz,” in Cultural Critique, Vol. 31, Fall, 1995, pp. 129-58.

[In the following essay, Harding finds similarities between Adorno's ideas about jazz and those of Ralph Ellison's narrator in Invisible Man.]

All totaled, Theodor Adorno wrote seven essays on jazz: three in the thirties, two in the forties, and two in the early fifties. His portrait of jazz was never flattering and was highly idiosyncratic. In the thirties, Adorno's criticisms of jazz functioned as the negative critical movement in what can be described as his dialectical embrace of Walter Benjamin's classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical...

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Peter Uwe Hohendahl (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The Philosopher in Exile,” in Prismatic Thought: Theodor W. Adorno, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, pp. 21-44.

[In the following essay, Hohendahl discusses works from Adorno's period living in the United States as well as Adorno's traumatic experience as an exile from his native Germany.]

It would be difficult to describe Theodor W. Adorno's connection to America—which for him meant the United States—as a happy or successful relationship. In fact, most commentators have rightly stressed its highly problematic nature, either by pointing out how unable and unwilling Adorno was to adjust to the American way of life or by emphasizing how the United...

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Kaspar Maase (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “A Taste of Honey: Adorno's Reading of American Mass Culture,” in European Readings of American Popular Culture, edited by John Dean and Jean-Paul Gabilliet, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 201-11.

[In the following essay, Maase examines what he sees as misreadings of Adorno's theories on mass culture in America.]

During the 1950s, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, together with other European emigrants to the United States such as Hannah Arendt, Günter Anders, and Leo Löwenthal, became protagonists of the theoretical critique of contemporary mass culture.1 Their philosophical study on the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” was first published in...

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Nico Israel (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Damage Control: Adorno, Los Angeles, and the Dislocation of Culture,” in the Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 85-113.

[In the following essay, Israel examines Minima Moralia for insights into Adorno's character and personality and the impact his exile in the United States had on his critical thought.]


To begin with an ending of sorts: at the conclusion to his 1967 Foreword to the English edition of Prisms, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno suggests, rather formally, that

[f]inally, the author could wish for nothing better than that the...

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Leonard Olschner (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Chapter 100: 1951,” in Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture 1096-1996, edited by Sander. L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, Yale University Press, 1997, pp. 691-96.

[In the following essay, Olschner examines the relevance of Adorno's assertion that lyric poetry could not be written after the events of the Holocaust.]

A tenaciously recurring leitmotif accompanying, at least implicitly, much West German discourse and criticism on lyric poetry after about 1960 has been the veritable possibility or impossibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz. Why lyric poetry should be singled out rather than, say, prose fiction or drama, has partially to...

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Michael Rothberg (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “After Adorno: Culture in the Wake of Catastrophe,” in New German Critique, Vol. 72, Fall, 1997, pp. 45-81.

[In the following essay, Rothberg discusses the legacy and frequent misinterpretations of Adorno's assertion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”]


In January 1995 a controversy erupted in connection with the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Upset that the Polish government seemed to be slighting the specifically Jewish elements of the Nazi extermination at Auschwitz, Jewish leaders and spokespeople,...

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Noah Isenberg (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Critical Theory at the Barricades,” in Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, Vol. 8, No. 8, November, 1998, pp. 19-22.

[In the following essay, Isenberg examines the student backlash against Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School in Germany in the 1960s.]

On April 22, 1969, shortly after beginning a lecture in his course on dialectical thought before an audience of nearly one thousand students at the University of Frankfurt, the eminent Frankfurt School sociologist and Marxist cultural critic Theodor W. Adorno found himself in an unusual situation. A student in one of the back rows interrupted him, demanding that he engage in...

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Further Reading


Dallmayr, Fred R. “Phenomenology and Critique: Adorno.” In Critical Encounters: Between Philosophy and Politics, pp. 39-72. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

Examines Adorno's place in the phenomenological movement.

Frow, John. “Mediation and Metaphor: Adorno and the Sociology of Art.” Clio 12, No. 1 (Fall 1982): 57-65.

Discusses Adorno's ideas about art and mass culture.

Gendron, Bernard. “Theodor Adorno Meets the Cadillacs.” In Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, edited by Tania Modleski, pp. 18-36. Bloomington and...

(The entire section is 263 words.)